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Jokes: a new guide to workplace humour

Are you a joker at work, or the butt of jokes? Or are you the observer, squirming behind your polite smile? Everyone knows jokes at work can ease tension, build camaraderie and make the day more bearable - but they can also offend, exclude and harm people. What’s far less clear is how to manage humour so it helps rather than hurts people and business.

Now, a new book by University of Auckland academics Barbara Plester and Kerr Inkson draws on the latest research to give practical tips on how to do just that.

Laugh Out Loud: A User’s Guide to Workplace Humour is believed to be the first authoritative, science-based guide of its kind in the world. The authors argue that everyone in an organisation has a role to play in managing humour, not just managers and HR. They use true-life vignettes (some toe-curling) to unpick common scenarios, and develop the idea of ‘humour boundaries’ - where friendly banter slips into harassment, bullying and other unwanted behaviour. These boundaries vary widely, but are generally looser in smaller companies. The authors explain how to identify where they lie in your organisation, and, if necessary, how to shift them.

There’s advice for everyone – for the jokers themselves, the targets/victims, the observers, the official and unofficial humour gatekeepers who enforce humour boundaries, and managers. The authors say the book is written for an international market, but has special resonance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“We’re a nation of piss-takers, but piss-taking can brutalise,” says Dr Plester. “And there’s still the idea that if you take offence, it’s your fault for being humourless - ‘What’s wrong with you, can’t you take a joke?’”

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The best response to that? “It depends on the context. If you think the offence was unintended, you could try saying something like, ‘I know you didn’t mean it like that, but that made me feel excluded/unvalued/incompetent.’ But if you think the person has it in for you, or is alienated from the company, you may need to escalate. Keep a record, seek support and corroboration from others at work, and tell the person you will lay a complaint if they don’t stop.”

Dr Plester started studying humour in the workplace after a past boss decreed there was to be no laughing at work – too noisy, distracting, and clearly off-task. She lasted three months in a no-laughter zone before quitting and going back to university, where she gained a Masters then a PhD on humour in the workplace, and went on to publish many articles and an academic book.

Her 14 years of research include spending a month each embedded in seven companies, observing how humour was used to include and marginalise, support and take down, reinforce and subvert power.

One of the more confronting moments happened when she was embedded at a “crazy IT company” where they were always playing pranks on each other and homophobic and misogynous jokes were the norm (there was a poster in the staffroom reading ‘Punch her in the face to show you’re right’). Once, just after she’d had knee surgery, the prank of the day was to remove all the screws from everyone’s chairs. Fortunately one of the few other women warned her just in time.

Dr Inkson also suffered ‘humour repression’ at work – he was fired from a summer job at a Scottish pea cannery for joking too much. A professor of organisational behaviour, he has written many books. He says getting workplace humour right offers serious benefits for firms.

“Although direct effects of humour on performance and productivity have not been proven, some studies suggest there is a link - staff certainly tend to believe this is the case, and the positive effects of 'humour breaks' on morale are undeniable.”

Tips for having a laugh at work:
• Remember that when groups that are already marginalised become targets for humour, this can increase the potential for harm.
• If it would embarrass you to have your joke told to your boss, senior colleagues or printed on the front page of a newspaper with your name, then it is probably not a good joke to tell at work.
• Company sexual harassment policies need to consider humour. One person’s ‘joke’ is another person’s harassment.
• Just because people are laughing does not mean they all like the joke or the sentiments in the joke. People may laugh from embarrassment or social pressure and politeness while actually feeling offended and upset – especially if the joke-teller is in a position of power.
• If you witness an offensive joke but can’t call out the joker, try ‘unlaughter’: staying po-faced and stony sends a strong message.
• Just because you think it is funny does not mean others will too. Try to see your joking around from someone else’s perspective – especially if they are a different gender or sexual persuasion or have different values than you.
• A sexual or sexist joke may incite a lot of mirth, but is never a good idea at work, even when you know your colleagues well. It may be overheard or repeated and is likely to cause offence.
• Sexual or sexist, racist or otherwise bigotry-based jokes shared via email can cause a lot of distress and can be easily circulated. Just don’t.

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